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What is Dry Mouth?

Dry mouth, also called xerostomia, is a non-life-threatening oral condition. It occurs when the salivary glands in the mouth do not produce enough saliva to keep the mouth wet. Although, dry mouth reduces a person’s quality of life because it affects simple day-to-day activities, such as tasting, eating, speaking, and swallowing. Untreated xerostomia can also lead to the rampant production of dental caries or erosion, which often results in social isolation and decreased confidence.

Xerostomia naturally occurs during sleep and typically causes bad morning breath. Adults who sleep with their mouths open are more likely to experience dry mouth. Chronic dry mouth, on the other hand, is caused by diseases, medications, or problems with the salivary glands.

Saliva and Tooth Decay

Specific components of saliva—such as calcium, phosphate, and bicarbonate—are key to maintaining good oral health. For example, saliva prevents tooth decay by protecting the enamel surface of tooth crowns and buffering acids produced by dental plaque bacteria. When acid damages tooth enamel, saliva repairs the tooth’s protective surface through remineralization. Saliva also protects against gum disease and dental caries, among others.

When the production of saliva decreases over time, oral dryness is more likely to occur, which may result in tooth decay or tooth loss.

Causes

Dry mouth can be directly related to the autoimmune destruction of the salivary glands (Sjogren’s syndrome). It can also be indirectly related to cancer treatment, prescription medications, recreational drugs, aging, or other oral health conditions. Common causes include:

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Chemotherapy

Saliva can become thicker from chemotherapy, which increases the risk of developing xerostomia.

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Radiation Therapy

Radiation therapy used to treat cancers of the neck, head, face, or salivary glands can increase mouth dryness.

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Prescription Medications

Some prescription drugs can induce oral dryness, including antidepressants, anti-anxiety medications, muscle relaxants, pain medications, decongestants, and high blood pressure medications.

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Aging

As people age, the risk of dry mouth increases. Dryness can be caused by long-term health conditions, poor nutrition, or medications. Snoring and mouth breathing may also cause dry mouth over time.

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Diseases

Sjogren’s syndrome, for example, attacks the glands that make tears and saliva. HIV/AIDS causes swollen salivary glands, which can also result in oral dryness. Other diseases associated with dry mouth include diabetes, hypertension, lymphoma, and hepatitis c.

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Nerve Damage

Nerve damage to the neck or head caused by an injury or surgery can decrease saliva production.

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Recreational Drugs

Excessive use of marijuana or amphetamines causes oral dryness.

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Tobacco

Tobacco slows down how fast mouths can produce saliva.

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Alcohol

Drinking alcohol excessively results in dehydration, which can cause dry mouth.

Signs & Symptoms

Symptoms can develop suddenly or gradually, depending on the patient’s lifestyle. When the mouth isn’t producing enough saliva, common signs of this condition include:

  • Dry mouth, throat, and tongue.
  • Thickened saliva.
  • Dry or cracked lips.
  • Bad breath, specifically in the morning.
  • Sore or scratchy throat.
  • Abnormal voice changes or difficulty speaking.
  • Abnormal changes in taste.
  • Difficulty eating, chewing, and swallowing.

Treatment Options & Risk Factors

Xerostomia can be reversed with lifestyle changes. Depending on the condition’s severity, there are natural ways to reduce dry mouth, including:

  • Drinking water regularly to stay hydrated.
  • Limiting dehydrating habits, such as caffeine and alcohol intake.
  • Taking over-the-counter saliva substitutes.
  • Avoiding certain medications, such as decongestants and antihistamines.
  • Stopping all tobacco use.
  • Breathing through the nose.
  • Avoiding sugary drinks and foods, such as candy and fruit juice.
  • Chewing sugar-free gum (helps increase saliva production).
  • Brushing with fluoride toothpaste.
  • Applying chapstick and moisture to the lips.

Although, if this condition is left untreated, more serious oral conditions can develop, including:

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Dental Caries & Tooth Decay

Dental caries, or cavities, are caused by the interaction between microorganisms (Streptococcus Mutans), tooth structure (enamel), and a substrate (sugar). Dry mouth increases the risk of dental caries because plaque is more difficult to remove, and it lowers the pH in the mouth, making it more acidic. Common treatment options include fillings, inlays, onlays, and dental crowns. If cavities are left untreated, tooth decay progresses, which often results in tooth loss.

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Dental Erosion

One of the most common risk factors of dry mouth is dental erosion, which occurs when acids wear away tooth enamel. As saliva production decreases, teeth are less protected from decay-causing bacteria.

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Gum Disease

A common risk factor of untreated dry mouth is gingivitis, a minor gum infection, or periodontal disease (PD), a serious oral disease that affects the gums and jawbone. PD is the result of poor oral hygiene, neglected dental treatment, dry mouth, or medications. Symptoms include inflamed gums, bleeding gums, and high levels of plaque.

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Mouth Sores

Mouth sores, ulcers, and canker sores are common risk factors of dry mouth.

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Thrush (Yeast Infection)

Patients with dry mouth are more prone to developing thrush, also referred to as a yeast infection. Thrush is the result of an overgrowth of Candida fungus.